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Global Trends 2025: the National Intelligence Council’s 2025 Project

24 November 2008

Summary:  Have you not been regularly reading the New York Times?  The US government has, at vast expense, commissioned a project to bring your vision of the future up to speed.  The speed of the New York Times Editors, that is.  Reading this guarantees that you will be surprised by every major development over the next two decades! 

Introduction

This is a nicely done exercise in linear projections.  While almost useless, it provides a good starting point for building scenarios.  The potentially “wild cards” in the deck are interpreted as sources of incremental change, or ignored.

Let’s consider just one issue:  Peak Oil — Never explicitly mentioned, the energy challenge is described in absurdly simplistic terms.  Just to mention two aspects.  First, it ignores perhaps the most transformational scenario — sudden peaking of oil production, capping global economic growth for one or two decades until alternatives are available in sufficient quantities.   Second, the energy section conflicts with current concerns about carbon emissions.  For example, the graph on page 43 forecasts a doubling of coal burning between 2000 and 2030.  While that could be done without increasing carbon emissions, the cost would be fantastic.

Other major events receive equally bland, even benign treatment.  All of these could produce large-scale political change, up to regime change.

  1. Demographic change, forcing massive social changes in western nations and Japan.
  2. Potential default of western corporations and governments on their promised retirement benefits (“There are no easy fixes for Europe’s demographic deficits except likely cutbacks in health and retirement benefits, which most states have not begun to implement or even to contemplate.”)
  3. Political drift to the left or right following the discrediting of free market economics after a Japan-like long recession.
  4. Geographical power shifts emboldening states to use financial strength as a substitute for war (“financial war”).

All these things and more are reduced to near-trivial incremental changes.  No possibility of regime change appears in their view, nothing to disturb the slumbers of the Virginia suburbanites who write this stuff.

The report

The Chairman of the National Intelligence Council writes about the The National Intelligence Council’s 2025 Project’s new report:  Global Trends 2025:

“Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World” is the fourth unclassified report prepared by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in recent years that takes a long-term view of the future. It offers a fresh look at how key global trends might develop over the next 15 years to influence world events. Our report is not meant to be an exercise in prediction or crystal ball-gazing. Mindful that there are many possible “futures,” we offer a range of possibilities and potential discontinuities, as a way of opening our minds to developments we might otherwise miss.

Some of our preliminary assessments are highlighted below:

  1. The whole international system-as constructed following WWII-will be revolutionized. Not only will new players-Brazil, Russia, India and China- have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game.
  2. The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
    Unprecedented economic growth, coupled with 1.5 billion more people, will put pressure on resources-particularly energy, food, and water-raising the specter of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
  3. The potential for conflict will increase owing partly to political turbulence in parts of the greater Middle East.
  4. As with the earlier NIC efforts-such as Mapping The Global Future 2020-the project’s primary goal is to provide US policymakers with a view of how world developments could evolve, identifying opportunities and potentially negative developments that might warrant policy action. We also hope this paper stimulates a broader discussion of value to educational and policy institutions at home and abroad.

Previous reports looking at the future by the US Intelligence Community

Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Declassified versions of recent National Intelligence Estimates:

  1. The Terrorist Threat to the US Homelane, July 2007
  2. Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead, January 2007
  3. Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States, prepared April 2006, released 26 September 2006
  4. Transformation through Integration and Innovation – National Intelligence Strategy of the US, 26 October 2005
  5. Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, October 2002 — a 28 page declassified version of the 90 page original.  The Senate Intelligence Committee published an analysis of this and other pre-war intelligence (July 2004, 521 pages; the pdf is here on the CFR website).
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4 Comments leave one →
  1. AMac permalink
    24 November 2008 4:24 am

    Re: #4, “financial war,” BBC reporter Humphrey Hawksley coauthored Dragon Strike in 1999. This future-history tale, set in 2001, concerned China settling scores with Viet Nam, but then seemingly stumbling towards a shooting war with the US. The most memorable part of the plot concerned the Politburo’s unwillingness to bankrupt China to satisfy the PLA’s desire for revenge. Fortunately (for Beijing), they had access to intelligent, patriotic, Western-trained bankers and financiers, able to place the right bets on the market (via cutouts, of course) to make the conflict self-financing, even profitable.

    Such a ‘wild card’ strategy was conceivable in 1999. It has probably gained a measure or two of plausibility in the last couple of years.

  2. Robert Petersen permalink
    24 November 2008 11:42 am

    If you want to know the future you would be far better served by reading sci-fi books. Sometimes they really hit the jackpot like the novels of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. It is true that there has never been a time machine (if so I have missed the visits from the future), but H.G. Wells did predict the invention of the atomic bomb in 1914 and made a fairly accurate description of modern warfare in “The War of the Worlds”.

    Predictions based on conventional knowledge rarely gets it right. A hundred years ago every military expert would predict that modern warfare would be based on fire and movement. Short offensives and quick victories. Only very few outside the military system – like the Pole Ivan Bloch – correctly predicted that modern warfare would rather be like siege warfare because firepower would pin the infantry and cavalry down.

    Only few years ago military experts and pundits told about the wonders of RMA and NWC. Of course it work perfectly well until confronted with real warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The point is: Any prediction about the future more than 5-10 years away will almost certainly be totally wrong. It won’t stop people from trying to make a prediction, but don’t take any bet about it. You will almost certainly loose.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all point. Even 10 years is probably too far ahead to see clearly. I recall a brlliant article which described how the world looked at the start of each decade — and how each decade saw that vision prove quite false!

  3. Arms Merchant permalink
    24 November 2008 9:16 pm

    The Air Force published a futures study back in 1996 that took an interesting approach: they bounded the problem by extrapolating “drivers” of change and then imagining those drivers as three axes on which you could plot alternative futures.

    The key drivers selected were
    1) the differential between technology proliferation and economic growth (constrained or exponential),
    2) U.S. participation in world affairs, called the American World View (domestic- or world-focused), and
    3) World Power – economic, political, and military (centralized or dispersed).

    Thus the actual future would lie somewhere in the “box,” with the 8 corners of the box describing some extreme alternative future. Obviously, this is highly dependendent on the drivers you pick, but I thought it was a worthwhile exercise because it gave you eight different futures to give you context to imagine your issues. Plus, the authors gave the eight future worlds fun names like “Zaibatsu,” “Digital Cacaphony,” and “Gulliver’s Travails.”

    You can read the report here if you are interested: “Air Force 2025” — A future study conducted 1995-1996 for the Air Force Chief of Staff.

    Anyway, the value of this type of approach is not so much in the conclusions but in the thought experiments you must perform in the context of radically different alternative futures.

    Attempting to understand a problem by bounding its extremes is a time-honored method of dealing with complexity. Clausewitz did this with warfare (“absolute” war) and is still misquoted or misunderstood because some readers don’t get that he’s contrasting a notional extreme with reality.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for bringing this to our attention! It looks interesting!

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